July 16 national suicide hotlineto a simpler 988 in hopes of making it easier for people in crisis to get help. Two months later, data shows there has been a significant increase in calls – but lingering concerns remain about the potential risk of police intervention in critical situations.
Dates published The US Department of Health and Human Services showed on September 9 that 45% more people contacted the new national suicide hotline in August 2022 than in the same month last year. More than 361,000 calls, texts and chats went through the service this August — 152,000 more than in 2021.
Despite a sharp increase in the number of individuals seeking help, response rates and wait times have improved, according to the data. Overall, 88% of calls, chats and texts were made in August, compared to 67% in August 2021. The average response time from a 988 advisor was 42 seconds compared to 2.5 minutes in August 2021.
Earlier this month, HHS also announced a $35 million grant opportunity to improve 988 Lifeline services in tribal communities. In a statement, HHS said the funding “will result in trained crisis counselors being better able to connect with even more people in need.” The grant is part of $150 million allocated to the 988 Lifeline under the bipartisan Safer Communities Act signed into law in June.
Suicide was the 12th leading cause of death in the United States in 2020 CDC data. The numbers are even more terrible for certain age groups: it was the second leading cause of death among 10- to 14-year-olds and 25- to 34-year-olds that year, the CDC said.
Although the new helpline number has led to increased call volume, concerns about the helpline have been circulating on social media. Some even discourage people from calling, citing concerns about the possibility of police involvement or forced hospitalization in the most critical situations.
Crisis counselors only contact 911 “in cases where there is or is a risk of harm to self or others and a less invasive plan for the safety of the caller/deputy cannot be worked with the individual,” according to the 988 Lifeline website. Less than 2% of calls to the helpline resulted in emergency services being involved, and more than half of those dispatches were made with the consent of the caller, the website said.
But when the police get involved in mental health crises, the results can be disastrous. Hannah Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), told CBS News that police can quickly escalate a situation when a person is in the midst of a mental health crisis.
“Someone in crisis may not be able to understand or respond to commands that law enforcement may issue,” she said. “This could be misread by law enforcement officers who don’t have the same training as a mobile crisis team.”
According to the Washington Post record of fatal police shootings that began in 2015, more than 1 in 5 people killed by police suffered from mental illness. According to the data, more than 1,600 people with mental illness have been shot and killed by active-duty officers since the database was launched.
“One of the things that we struggle with a lot in mental health is discrimination against people or the stigma associated with people with mental health issues,” Dr. Sally Ricketts, co-chair of psychiatry at Bassett Healthcare Network. “And in a way, when you pull something like that, you identify that population.”
US created a portal where people can submit their own stories of crisis response. One of those people is Sonia, a mother from Georgia who said she called the police on her son’s behalf before a three-digit helpline was put in place. Police “found him and put him in jail,” she wrote. “He doesn’t deserve jail. He needs mental health help.”
IN blog post for the Well-Being Trust, a foundation dedicated to improving mental health, another woman said the telemedicine therapist she spoke to in 2021 — who was not connected to Lifeline — called 911 just minutes after their conversation, though she only shared “foggy thoughts I had about hurting myself.” The woman said she spent four hours in the emergency room amid the COVID-19 pandemic before she was deemed suicidal and allowed to go home.
“When I think back on my experience, I feel anger,” she wrote in a quote he also sent to the NAMI portal. “I think about how, in a very vulnerable state, I had to stand up to prevent my situation from escalating with the police. I think about all the people, especially people of color, who did not and will not have my presence of mind in moments of mental health crisis.”
The helpline tries to connect callers to the nearest call center based on their area code – but this may not always reflect the person’s current location. Unlike 911, 988 does not have access to the exact location of callers.
The Lifeline website notes that if necessary, “Lifeline counselors must provide 911 operators with what information they have — the caller/texter’s phone number or the chat user’s IP address — to enable them to do everything in their power to they found the individual.”
Many advocates and mental health experts have said that mobile crisis teams should be deployed in emergency situations instead of law enforcement. Staffed by mental health professionals, the teams are able to travel to those in need of immediate help, de-escalate crises and connect people to crisis stabilization programs and other longer-term resources.
Although the use of mobile crisis teams has expanded significantly across the United States in recent years, there are areas where they are not readily available.
The Biden administration has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to support the transition to 988, including the development of additional crisis teams, HHS said. In September alone, the administration will fund $9 million in “grants to states, territories, tribes, and public or private nonprofit entities to create or enhance existing mobile crisis teams that can respond to mental health crises in lieu of law enforcement or emergency medical personnel.” ” according to HHS.
Wesolowski said many people involved with NAMI have used the 988 Lifeline and expressed relief that they were able to quickly reach crisis counselors and get help. But she said that doesn’t mean the work to get resources for those in crisis is over.
“988 is part of that process and an entry point, but we need more of a crisis response,” Wesolowski said.
988 is not “mission accomplished,” she said — but noted that “six months from now, six months from now, we’re going to see so many more crisis services come online that will really save lives.”
If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or a suicidal crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
For more information on mental health care resources and support, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline Monday through Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. ET at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or email info@ nami.org.